Noe Valley Voice June 2004

End of the Line for Streetcar Savior Richard Schlaich

By Laura McHale Holland

If you've ever ridden the Muni's F-line down Market Street or taken a child for a ride on "Little Puffer," the miniature steam train at the San Francisco Zoo, that pleasure is due in large part to the efforts of Richard Ellis Schlaich. Yet it's likely that you've never before seen his name.

You may have passed him on 24th Street, a tall, elderly man with a slight slouch and genteel manners reminiscent of bygone times. You might have browsed beside him at Phoenix Books or sat in a booth near him at Herb's Fine Foods while he ordered his usual--a side of ham, a side of sourdough toast, a small pineapple juice, a glass of water, and decaffeinated coffee--from his friend and waitress Irene Feragen. But you probably never knew you were in the presence of one of the most generous people ever to grace Noe Valley.

"Richard was a public-spirited person who was prone to let other people take credit for his work. He loved San Francisco and Noe Valley, and he wanted to enrich the community," says historian and author Emiliano Echeverria, who counted Schlaich among his dearest friends. "He succeeded at that beyond his wildest dreams."

Schlaich was born on Sept. 9, 1931, and lived his entire life in a home on Douglass Street that his parents bought in 1915, when it was new. After graduating from Polytechnic High School in 1950, he worked as a civil servant, first at San Francisco General Hospital and later in administration for the county's retirement system. He retired in 1996.

However, his passion to preserve our historical heritage and his willingness to share the fruits of his many hobbies was what truly distinguished him. Sadly, he succumbed to pancreatic cancer on March 18, having been diagnosed just a few months earlier. He was 72.

When he was a boy attending nearby Alvarado Elementary School, he loved riding all over the city on streetcars, which were prevalent at the time. His favorite route was the Market Street Railway's 11-line, which ran up and down 24th Street. As Schlaich grew up, streetcars and cable cars were being phased out and replaced by buses, but his affection for the cars remained strong. As a teen, he often gathered with other youths who shared his interest in urban transit systems and San Francisco's colorful history. They collected information and swapped memorabilia, thus beginning Schlaich's avocation as a collector.

When he was fresh out of high school, Schlaich joined the Committee to Save the Cable Cars and became instrumental in preserving what are now beloved emblems of our city's unique charm, drawing riders from around the globe.

In 1951, the first streetcars used by Muni, known as A-types, were pulled out of service. One slated for disposal, the #1 car, was the first car Muni ever ran and the first publicly owned streetcar in the United States. (Before Muni was established, private companies owned streetcars and cable cars.)

Schlaich, only 20 years old at the time, was able to persuade higher-ups at the Western Pacific Railroad and the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society to preserve the car. Then he convinced the same people to preserve the Market Street Railway car #578, which was going to be junked. It had been part of a private fleet, but became the property of Muni in 1944.

In 1956, both cars were brought out of storage and re-motorized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Later, these two cars became the basis for what is now the historic F-line.

Car #1 is in regular service, and #578 is used on special occasions. Schlaich has been the final word on how to accurately paint and restore the cars in the fleet, noticing even slight deviations in trim color and size, location of signs, and other details others might consider unimportant.

Schlaich's most recent rabble-rousing was in the 1990s, when the city was on the verge of selling "Little Puffer," which had been out of service since the Zoo was remodeled in the late 1970s. "Richard had ridden the train as a child and knew it had been part of the Zoo almost since its inception. He felt it was wrong for the city to get rid of it, so he raised a stink and convinced the city to withdraw the train and its components from auction," recalls Echeverria. The Zoo subsequently restored the train and put it back into service.

In the last year of his life, Schlaich's major project was to ensure that the Municipal Railway photo archives, which date back to 1903, were preserved and made accessible to the public. He inspired his friends to found Friends of the Muni Photo Archive to carry on this work. Until the end, he was a valued source of information for researchers and enthusiasts of not just public transit, but also music, local lore, and photography.

"He was so knowledgeable," Echeverria reminisces. "I tried for years and years to learn from him what he had to teach, but I don't think I got half of it. Not because he didn't want to teach me, but because there was so much there."

Several years ago, Grant Ute, who often visited his grandparents in Noe Valley when he was a child, was seeking historical information about Muni's operations in the 1940s. "Everybody I talked to told me I should call Dick, and I finally did," Ute recalls. "He really opened my eyes. He had a wealth of insight and information."

The two became fast friends, visiting often at Schlaich's home. Ute refers to himself as Schlaich's "last apprentice."

Ute and Echeverria, along with fellow members of the Market Street Railway, helped organize a memorial for Schlaich on Saturday, May 22, at the Muni yard at Duboce and Market streets. An estimated 200 people gathered to listen to those closest to him share their fondest memories. Then about 40 people hopped onto Car #1, which had been specially commissioned to traverse the city following Schlaich's favorite routes, and rode the rails past some of his favorite places, including the Ferry Building, the former site of Polytechnic High School, and Church and 24th streets.

One of those who attended the memorial was James Koehneke, who works at Phoenix Books. "Richard had a great love of American music of all kinds. He was a record collector, an instrument builder, as well as a fan of music ephemera of all kinds, especially everything between 1880 and 1945. He had a brilliant collection of 78 rpm records--country and western, hillbilly music, ragtime--which he shared with me. And he continued to create this type of music through building mechanical instruments. It was fascinating to visit him. His house was like a museum, with amazing bits of history stacked everywhere."

Schlaich was deft at building and repairing orchestrions, which are mechanical instruments automatically played by means of revolving cylinders. They often include wind instruments, drums, and cymbals. He also built a mechanical guitar, with a modern twist. "He devised a way to have his computer operate one of his guitars, so he was composing stuff and using sheet music to make a computer play a mechanical instrument. He combined turn-of-the-century technology with 21st-century technology," recalls Echeverria.

Schlaich was lucid until the very end of his life, so he was able to provide instructions for the disposition of his photo and other collections. At least three organizations were recipients of his largesse: the Market Street Railway, the San Francisco Main Library, and the Western Railway Museum in Fairfield.

Schlaich never married and had no children. He is survived by his brother Roderick of San Jose, and his cousin Fran Johanson of Roseville. Plans are in the works to install a bench with a plaque bearing his name at the 11-Hoffman bus stop nearest his home.

"Richard found out in the end how much people really loved him. He died at home surrounded by friends, relatives, and neighbors, who all came to help him out," reflects Echeverria. "He was never on the radio, never on television, never interviewed by the press. Other people got the glory, but he's an unsung, altruistic hero who cared. He put his effort where it counted."

Many thanks to Linda Beenau, Russ Doering, Emilio Echeverria, Irene Feragen, Fran Johanson, Paul Kantus, James Koehneke, Carmen Magana, Bob Townley, and Grant Ute, who all contributed to this story.